18 October 2004
The kidnapping of two Chinese engineers working in an irrigation project in South Waziristan in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan by a group of pro-Osama bin Laden jihadi terrorists last week and the death of one of them on October 13,2004, during a rescue operation mounted by the US-trained Special Services Group, the parent Army unit of Gen.Pervez Musharraf, draws attention once again to the growing threat to Chinese lives and interests in Pakistan from jihadi terrorists belonging to the International Islamic Front (IIF) of bin Laden. I had highlighted these threats in two of my previous articles of May and August 2004.
In an article (http://www.saag.org/papers10/paper993.html) written after an explosion in Gwadar in Balochistan on May 3, 2004, which killed three Chinese engineers, I had stated as follows: " The Chinese suspicion seems to be directed at anti-Beijing Uighur extremist elements who have taken shelter in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. In view of the Chinese interest in the Gwadar port as a gateway for the external trade of the Xinjiang province and as a regional base for the Chinese Navy, the Uighur extremists, in Beijing's perception, would have a strong motive to disrupt its construction."
In another article (http://www.saag.org/papers11/paper1075.html) on some explosions in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, I had stated as follows: "There are no reliable reports of the number of Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs in South Waziristan. Some Pakistani journalists, who had visited the South Waziristan area in March-April, had estimated the total number of foreigners, who had been given shelter there by the local tribals , as about 600, about 200 of them Uzbeks and the remaining Chechens, Uighurs, Arabs and others. Other reports place the number of Uighurs as about 100. The presence of Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs in the Taliban and in Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami now operating in Afghanistan has also been reported. Their number is not known. The Uighurs trained by the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan ) were suspected of involvement in the explosion in Gwadar in Balochistan earlier this year in which some Chinese engineers were killed and in the explosions on July 31,2004, at the same town in which no casualties have been reported. An increase in attacks on Chinese lives and interests in Pakistan and the Xinjiang province of China is a possibility."
No official figures of the total number of Chinese engineers and other experts based in Pakistan are available. However, the "Dawn" of Karachi (October 17, 2004) puts their number at a couple of thousand. In a report on the terrorist attack on the two Chinese engineers in the South Waziristan area, it said: "According to one official estimate, more than a couple of thousand Chinese engineers and technicians are working on several major projects in Pakistan. Most of them being in the Frontier and Balochistan provinces. Saindak, Gwadar and Chashma II are among the major projects."
Reliable and independent sources divide these engineers and other experts into the following three groups:
Those assisting Pakistan in the development of its nuclear and missile capability. They are helping Pakistan in the already commissioned Chashma I nuclear power station, in the designing and construction of the second nuclear power station called Chashma II, and in the running of the production facilities for the extraction of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel and for the assembly and fabrication of the Pakistani versions of the Chinese-designed M-9 and M-11 missiles. Those in this group constitute the largest number.
Those assisting Pakistan in the construction of a new port at Gwadar in Balochistan, which is expected to reduce Pakistan's dependence on Karachi, presently Pakistan's only major international port and major naval base and in the exploitation of the rich mineral resources of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, such as the Saindak copper ore project in Balochistan. They constitute the second largest number.
Those assisting Pakistan in the economic development of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in which South Waziristan is located and other tribal areas and of the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) bordering the Xinjiang Province of China. They constitute the third largest group. While those based in the Northern Areas mainly help Pakistan in the maintenance and improvement of the Karakoram Highway, those in the FATA and other tribal areas assist Pakistan in the exploitation of the mineral resources and irrigation and power facilities in these areas.
In addition to the three groups mentioned above, small numbers of Chinese experts are also attached to the Pakistan Railways for improving its performance and to the Pakistan Armed Forces for assisting in the maintenance of the Chinese military equipment.
The presence of the Chinese engineers and other experts in the nuclear and missile establishments and in the armed forces has generally been welcomed by all sections of the population, including by the Islamic fundamentalist parties and the Pakistani jihadi organisations, which are members of the bin Laden-inspired International Islamic Front (IIF), which came into being in February,1998, and has been in the forefront of the world-wide jihad in many countries.
All of them, including bin Laden's Al Qaeda, had in the past expressed the gratitude of the Islamic Ummah to Beijing for its help in the production of Pakistan's atomic bomb, which is viewed by them as the Ummah's Islamic bomb and hence the common strategic asset of the Ummah as a whole. There is, therefore, no controversy about their presence in Pakistani territory and no jihadi anger against them.
There is, however, growing anger against the Chinese working in Balochistan and in the FATA. The Balochs are strongly opposed to the Gwadar project, which they view as essentially meant to serve the economic and military interests of the Punjabis. Distrusting the Balochs, the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf has re-settled a large number of Punjabis, many of them ex-servicemen, in Balochistan, particularly in the Mekran Coast, for working in the Gwadar project as well as in another Chinese-aided infrastructure project for the construction of a coastal road connecting Gwadar and Karachi.
The Baloch nationalists have been agitating against these projects which, they apprehend, would reduce them to a minority in their homeland. They have also been critical of the Chinese for assisting the military-dominated regime in its designs against the Balochs.
The anger against the Chinese working in the FATA, particularly in the South Waziristan area, is due to other reasons. The terrorist infrastructure of the Chechen, Uzbek and Uighur organisations, which are associated with bin laden's IIF, is located in this area. The Chinese have been greatly concerned over the activities of these elements, which they view as posing a threat to their security in the Xinjiang province.
The foreign-based Uighur organisations agitating against the Chinese fall into two groups--those agitating for "azadi" (freedom) for the Uighurs living in Xinjiang and in the bordering Central Asian Republics (CARs), who do not have any pan-Islamic objective, and those agitating for the formation of an Islamic caliphate consisting of Xinjiang and the CARs.
The "azadi" elements largely operate through propaganda and other means of psychological warfare (psywar) from safe sanctuaries in the West, including the USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even some of the CARs. The jihadi pro-Caliphate elements, which are aligned with bin Laden's IIF, operate mainly from safe sanctuaries in the FATA and other tribal areas of Pakistan. They enjoy the support of the tribal elements and the Pakistani fundamentalist and jihadi organisations.
Talking to a group of senior Pakistani newspaper editors after a visit to China last year, Musharraf was reported to have stated that he was shocked by the strong language used by the Chinese leaders while talking of the activities of the Uighur jihadi terrorists from Pakistani territory.
Since then, the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have mounted special operations to smoke out the Chechens, the Uzbeks and the Uighurs operating from the FATA in co-operation with each other. Apart from killing or capturing a few Uzbek and Chechen terrorists and killing an Uighur terrorist, these operations have not produced any significant results. In the meanwhile, the Hizbut Tehrir, which has a strong presence in Pakistan and the CARs, has started wooing the Uighurs in an attempt to set up sleeper cells in Xinjiang. Amongst the major successes claimed by the Pakistani authorities since March last are are the killing of Hassan Mahsun of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and of Nek Muhammad, a local Pakistani tribal leader, who was allegedly assisting the Al Qaeda and the Taliban remnants and causing serious injuries to Tohir Yuldeshev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who, however, managed to escape.
Following the Gwadar explosion of May, a large number of Chinese intelligence officers from its Ministries of State (external) and Public (internal) Security have been deployed in Balochistan and South Waziristan to assist the Pakistani authorities in their investigation and in their hunt for the Uighur jihadi terrorists.
According to well-informed sources in the Pakistan Police, next to the US intelligence agencies, the Chinese agencies have the largest number of their operatives in Pakistani territory. While the Americans have been helping the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment in its hunt for the dregs of the Al Qaeda, the Chinese operatives have been active in the hunt against the Uighurs.
The jihadi organisations suspect that many of the Chinese operatives inducted into Balochistan and the FATA after the explosion of May last work under the cover of members of the staff of Chinese construction companies, which have been helping Pakistan in its various projects in these areas.
It is said that the kidnapping of the two Chinese engineers was an operation jointly mounted by Pakistani members of the Jundullah (Army of Allah), a new jihadi organisation which came to notice for the first time at Karachi on June 10, 2004, when it unsuccessfully tried to kill the then Corps Commander of the Pakistan Army at Karachi, the dregs of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and some Chechens and Uighurs whose organisational affiliation is not clear. The Pakistani military authorities have projected Abdullah Mahsud, a former Taliban commander who was released by the US authorities from detention in their Guantanamo Bay detention camp in March last, as the mastermind of the kidnap and have admitted that apart from some local tribal followers of Abdullah Mahsud, three Uzbeks were also involved. They have claimed that the apparent objective of the kidnappers was to secure the release of some foreign terrorists arrested in the area recently. They have played down the possibility of any specific anti-Chinese motive.
On the other hand, Pakistani Police sources say that the jihadis suspected that the two kidnapped Chinese were actually intelligence operatives working under the cover of irrigation engineers belonging to a Chinese company specialising in the construction of irrigation projects. According to them, more attacks on Chinese engineers working in Balochistan and the FATA and a possible terrorist strike against the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad are likely. There is no indication so far of the likelihood of any terrorist strike against the Chinese working in the nuclear and missile establishments and in the Armed Forces.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper no. 1145, October 18, 2004
* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.